Thursday, May 27, 1926, was a celebratory day in Vincennes. That morning, the brand-new Brown Shoe factory opened for the public to tour, and, over the course of the day, thousands turned out to see the facility. Between 3-10 p.m. alone, after residents got off work, 11,500 people went through the building.
Everyone who toured the factory received a souvenir. Adults got a commemorative button and children were given a popgun. The First Regiment Band played throughout the day, and a second band took over in the evening.
The Vincennes factory would produce children’s shoes. Brown Shoe manufactured the Buster Brown brand, and their subsidiary, the Central Shoe Company, distributed Brown’s Robin Hood Shoes. The comic strip character Buster Brown became the company’s mascot in 1904. Buster Brown himself, along with his bulldog, Tige, appeared downtown at Gimbel, Haughton & Bond, where that brand of shoe was sold. George Klein & Sons Shoe Store, at 329 Main St., sold Robin Hood Shoes and Robin Hood could be seen there that day. The characters also came to the factory. Buster Brown two-reel films that were being produced in the 1920s, were shown on a screen outside the building.
Brown officials traveled to Vincennes from St. Louis to be part of the day’s festivities. In the evening, a banquet attended by some 350 people, was held at the YMCA at Fourth and Broadway streets. Attendees included Brown and B. & O. Railroad officials, along with community leaders. Mayor Claude Gregg served as toastmaster. At the conclusion of the banquet, a big dance was held at the factory.
Manufacturing of shoes began on June 1. The plant got off to a somewhat slow start, with just 103 employees, most with little or no experience. Further, the jobs were not high paying. The employees did piece work; thus, they were paid for the amount of work done. The first week’s payroll was just $1,018.72. By year’s end, some 350 people, both men and women, were employed and the weekly payroll was $4,500. Three-thousand pairs of shoes were being produced every day.
In the early spring of 1927, the company instituted a change in management, improving the Vincennes factory’s productivity. By that time, some men were making as much as $35 a week and women up to $30.
The factory made it smoothly through the start of the Great Depression. By March 1930, there were approximately 625 employees, and the typical weekly payroll was around $10,000. Since the factory opened, 3,614,810 pairs of shoes had been shipped and nearly $1,100,000 in wages had been paid. All styles of shoes were later produced, for both men and women.
The Brown Shoe factory had its ups and downs over the coming years. Strikes closed the factory a number of times. There was a two-and-a-half-week strike in May 1934, after some employees joined the Boot and Shoe Workers Union. At that time the average two-week payroll was between $15,000 and $17,000. A strike closed the factory for five months in 1951. Another big strike took place in 1955.
Still, production continued to increase, and additions would be added to the original building.
In 1941, the factory started producing Goodyear welt construction women’s and girl’s shoes, rather than shoes of stitch down construction. For a time, during the Korean War, they made footwear for the Armed Forces. Next, the factory was converted to make men’s and boy’s Goodyear welt shoes and later the Pedwin brand for young men as well as other brands.
The Vincennes branch of the Brown Shoe factory continued to provide local jobs for many more years, until the increasing number of imported shoes led to its demise.
Brian Spangle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.